For one night at least, it was all about possibilities. Possibilities that Barack Obama, America’s new president-elect, weaved in a tapestry of patriotism and change, with his trademark eloquence — in that effortless baritone that starts from someplace down here.
For one night, a night of smashing victory unseen in American politics in nearly a generation, he exuded a confident humility that was beyond his years but seemed, in him, so natural and alluring.
#ad#It was a night that invited haughtiness. And make no mistake about it: His core supporters yearn for payback — over the Clinton impeachment, over what their lore says was stolen from them in 2000, over the frenzy into which each Bush initiative seemed to drive them these eight long years. But on this night, to his great credit, our new president would have none of it.
Be under no illusions: The president-elect knows where he came from and who got him to this point. “Change” has come to America, he proclaimed to a waving sea of jubilant supporters. Exactly what that change will be is not yet clear, but it would be foolish not to feel the ground beneath us shifting. Change will lean leftward. It will be statist. The questions are how far and how fast — and with his sweeping coattails that solidified Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, how far and how fast will really be up to President Obama.
It is here, though, that Obama, at least for one night, was at his most gracious. He addressed himself directly to us — to conservatives and other skeptical Americans who opposed him, often stridently.
On a night of glorious triumph for him and his ravenous supporters, the message could easily have been: Time for you bitter clingers to get with the program. It wasn’t. Instead, the new president spoke humbly to those whose votes he said he had not yet “earned.” He promised to be our president too — to listen with a heightened attentiveness especially when we disagree, which, to be certain, will be often.
Does he mean it? Here’s hoping so. What is so unnerving is that even now, after the longest presidential campaign in American history, in a country whose deep divisions should lend themselves to the media vetting of candidates from both sides, Obama remains an enigma.
The mainstream press, with its Watergate-bred self-image, its Sixties-driven J-school mission of sculpting rather than reporting news, and its intoxication by the historic moment, became Obama’s palace guard — determined to get him to the palace. Basic information about him remains unexplored: the circumstances of his birth, his immersion in a radical environment, his affiliation with a socialist political party in the mid-Nineties, his fringe opposition to medical care for infants who survive attempted abortions, and so on.
Is he the quietly effective radical strongly suggested by his hard-edged record and his confederation with anti-American revolutionaries? Or is he the centrist healer of his aspirational, inspirational rhetoric? We don’t know for sure. That’s why many of us opposed him, even against a deeply flawed (albeit personally heroic) Republican, the slim prospect of whose victory was as much a source of anxiety as enthusiasm.
Is Obama a Leftist revolutionary? He denies ideological mooring, insisting he is a pragmatist. That should bring some comfort, but it doesn’t really. In his formative community-organizer days, our new president mastered the groundbreaking work of Saul Alinsky, who made pragmatism the clarion call of a systematized, disciplined radicalism.
Alinsky, too, rejected ideological dogmatism. He taught that the successful radical is the wolf in sheep’s clothing: burrowing into the institutions of Western capitalism, altering their character from within, seducing the society with a high-minded summons to “social justice,” “participatory democracy,” and, yes, “change.” Is Obama following this stealthy roadmap? If that is his intention, it’s hard to imagine how he could have done so more perfectly.
On the other hand, people I know and respect, including some who knew Obama when he initially made history as The Harvard Law Review’s first black editor, insist that he is most decidedly not a radical. They say he is just what he now purports to be: a consensus builder whose “progressive” leanings are undeniable but do not render him deaf to persuasive arguments from the other side. On this accounting, the Ayers, Klonskys and Khalidis in his closet are to be understood not as kindred spirits but merely as voices of the hard Left that a confident Obama can hear out, and occasionally even collaborate with, while maintaining his safe, pragmatic distance.
#ad#Which is right? We don’t know, or at least I certainly don’t know. But I admit to worrying. A few days ago, as the contest wended toward the finish line with the outcome no longer much in doubt, Obama asserted that he sensed a “righteous wind” at his back. Some sloughed this off as campaign cant. Others among us, having studied Obama’s background, couldn’t help but hear Chairman Mao.
Is that paranoia or well-informed dread? Alas, the jury is still out, and that shouldn’t be. We ought to know the manner of man we are installing in the world’s most powerful office before the installation takes place.
Yet for one night, I was impressed. Impressed most by the dignity with which he bore the weight of his historic achievement: satisfied but not gloating, victorious but magnanimous, gratified by what he has accomplished and what it so obviously means to African Americans, but mindful of the enormous burdens he has assumed and the duties he now owes to all Americans, including the loyal opposition.
Emphasis here on loyal. President-Elect Obama correctly but no less honorably said he still needed to earn our support. For our part, we need to offer our support earnestly.
He is our president now, the president of our beloved nation. Too many have given their lives for this union, and too many are risking their lives for America even now, for us to shrink from honoring their sacrifice. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight President Obama when we think he is wrong. In fact, it means we must fight him. Fighting him when he is wrong will make him a better president, which in turn will make our country stronger. That’s the opposition part, and the freedom to oppose is our nation’s greatest strength.
Still, the loyal part means we must support our president when we think he is right. We must meet him when he reaches out to us. We must try to guide him toward what we believe is best for national security and prosperity. Just as we demand that President Obama put America first, we must be Americans first ourselves.
Our country has had an election. Our side got trounced. We’ve strayed far from our principles. We’ve too often failed to make our case even when it was right there for the making. If the best we have to offer America is Democrat-lite, Americans can’t be blamed for deciding they’d just as soon have the real thing. If we operate in stealth and incoherence, abdicating our duty to convince our fellow citizens of the rightness of measures taken for our security, they can’t be blamed for suspecting we are in the wrong.
It is on us to fix these things. They urgently need fixing if we are to offer the country something worthy.
For the moment, however, let’s accept defeat with the same purposeful grace President Obama exhibited in victory. And as power once again shifts peacefully from one hand to the next, from one party to the other, let’s remember how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation in human history.